The sun beat down on the soccer pitch, and the sounds rose in a cacophony familiar to anyone who has played the game: players calling for passes; teammates warning one another as a defender closed in; coaches barking instructions as they watched with calculating, shrewd expressions.
The smile on Matt Wolff’s face reflected more than pleasant memories of his own soccer career at Skidmore University in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“These players have no idea they’re making our dreams come true,” Wolff said as he and Patrick Infurna, one of his fellow cofounders of Vermont Green FC, watched the practice at the University of Vermont’s Virtue Field, where the newly formed USL League Two team will play its home matches.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but this is literally a dream come true for us,” added Infurna. “To be where we were six months ago, sitting in front of our laptops and just seeing if something like this might work, to now be watching the players we’ve signed train before our first match on Sunday … It’s honestly surreal.”
Wolff, Infurna and their third partner, Keil Corey, have established Vermont’s first semiprofessional men’s soccer team since the St. Albans-based Vermont Voltage folded in 2014. But the brand-new Burlington club has more than soccer on its mind. When the partners envisioned their fantasy club, they wanted a team that would promote social and environmental justice. What’s more, they hoped to create a blueprint for other teams to follow.
To that end, Vermont Green FC will donate 1 percent of its annual sales to environmental nonprofit organizations. For team merchandise, the club has partnered with Recover Brands, a company that makes 100 percent recycled products. The company will take back any used merchandise and repurpose it into new products, a method called circularity.
“It’s a way to fight so-called ‘fast fashion,'” said Corey as he joined Wolff and Infurna by the field. The club’s recycled polyester uniforms are produced in Chinese factories that have been audited to substantiate their eco-friendly claims.
That side of the business was a priority for Wolff, who was already well established in the soccer business and had designed uniforms for teams including Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire and the 2018 World Cup-winning French national team. During the COVID-19 lockdown, he decided he wanted to use the lessons he learned in the industry to start his own team.
He reached out to his friend and former Skidmore teammate, Corey, who would spearhead the environmental mission of the team, and then connected with Infurna, a Vermont native who works as the digital and social media producer for the German Bundesliga soccer club Eintracht Frankfurt. They quickly agreed to locate in Burlington because of its young, vibrant soccer community and progressive values.
“The whole city has been eerily supportive so far,” Corey said. “From the youth clubs to UVM to sponsors like SunCommon, it’s been incredible. But that didn’t totally surprise me, really. Having grown up here, I know how much this community loves soccer and how well a team could do here. I also think our environmental mission will resonate with the city.”
The founders also believe that environmental responsibility and social justice go hand in hand. “Racism in this sport is still sadly prevalent,” Infurna said. So, Vermont Green FC has joined a coalition called the Anti Racist Soccer Club, whose teams, players and coaches are committed to combating racism in American soccer.
The club has also partnered with Juba Star FC, a soccer team formed by the Somali Bantu community in Burlington. A few of Juba Star’s players have signed on to play with Vermont Green for its inaugural season, a quick campaign that goes from May until mid-June — longer if the club qualifies for playoffs.
“We’re going to play a friendly against Juba Star next week, then all have a big party together afterwards,” Infurna said with a grin. Most of the team’s other opponents are based in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and upstate New York.
As the three founders stood watching, an errant pass flew toward them. Wolff hustled over to kick it back to his squad of mostly college-age players. Head coach Adam Pfeifer of Waterbury yelled to one of his defenders, urging him to take a better first touch on the ball.
A former USL League Two player himself, Pfeifer won two national titles with the Cape Cod Crusaders in 2002 and 2003. He now coaches men’s soccer at Norwich University. The Vermont Green founders brought Pfeifer on as head coach and technical director for his experience and for his understanding of how the semiprofessional leagues can benefit college players.
“Those years playing with Cape Cod were really great,” Pfeifer said, after practice ended. “You’re a bunch of young guys on this summer adventure, spending time and even living together. Ideally, you want them hanging out and becoming close, because that reflects on the pitch.”
Pfeifer said he sees potential both in his new players and in the club itself. When he played for the Crusaders, his team’s biggest regional rival was the Vermont Voltage. Whenever they’d play the Voltage, he could see the passion for the sport in the Burlington area.
“This has the opportunity to really resonate up here,” he said.
While the partners have high hopes that Pfeifer is correct, Corey acknowledged that a friend of theirs who works in finance balked when they told him of their plans.
“He was like, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?'” Corey recounted. “And, hey, it’s the first business any of us have ever started, so he’s not wrong about it being a risk. Though I felt a lot better about it once we locked down a sponsor.”
“We’re still firmly in the drinking-from-the-firehose phase of it all,” Infurna added. “We can’t look too far down the line just yet. We’ve just got to get people out to the matches and keep building what we’ve started.”
Wolff can’t help but dream of the future a little bit, though. He pulled his baseball cap lower to shield his eyes from the sun as he watched one of his players take a furious shot on goal. Several other players, who had been teammates for all of two days, ran over to celebrate the goal, hugging and exchanging high fives as if old friends.
“I hope we’re still around in six years,” he said. “Wouldn’t mind winning some trophies; that would be cool. There will be good seasons and bad, but if we build something here that really resonates with Vermonters, then I think we’ll be around for a while.”